A growing number of people in Mexico are turning to the worship of Saint Death – a figure who appears to be a combination of Catholic imagery with pre-Columbian beliefs. This blending of religious beliefs is called ‘syncretism’ and is a common feature of most faiths. In this case, Mexicans have taken the blood stained effigies of latin Catholicism imported from Spain and mixed them with the macabre ancestor worship of pre-Columbian peoples.
But in a disturbing turn – a family in Mexico is now being investigated in connection with several murders which are allegedly sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The victims were two ten year olds and a 55 year old. The alleged killers are part of a very poor family whom the local community had felt rather sorry for…but no longer. Several media outlets including the BBC and Fox News have reported on the story.
The offering of blood to the deity has an eery chime with Aztec blood sacrifices – if you recall, prisoners taken in war by the Aztecs would be dragged to the top of a pyramid where a priest would carve open their chest with an obsidian dagger and tear out their still beating heart. In this way, the sun god would be appeased and crops would grow, battles would be won, etc.
It should be emphasised that most devotees of this cult do not endorse ritual murder but the growth of worship to Santa Muerte suggests this syncretic beflief is fulfilling a spiritual need in modern Mexico – particularly among the poor – that the mainstream Catholic church cannot satisfy.
Christianity is no stranger to syncretism – from the start, it has absorbed elements of other religions possibly without being aware of the fact. Mithraism, Manicheanism, Greek philosophy, Roman gods, etc have all influenced the iconography and views of Christians. Who, for example, could look at an image of Isis and the baby Horus and not see the Virgin and child? Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that early Christianity was heavily influenced by other faiths around it and you have, for example, the efforts of one emperor, Heliogabalus, to combine both Judaism and Christianity in to his Syrian god cult.
Turning back to Mexico, one of the country’s best actors Gael Garcia Bernal has narrated this documentary on the growth of the Santa Muerte cult and it makes fascinating viewing.